Norwegian firms called ‘racist’

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A leading Norwegian headhunter who recruits engineers and other skilled workers for Norwegian oil and oil-service companies says he’s encountered a “shocking” degree of what he calls blatant “racism” among prospective Norwegian employers. Even those in dire need of engineers and other specialists routinely turn down top foreign job candidates. They want Norwegians instead.

A looming shortage of workers in Norway’s offshore industry isn’t helped by attitudes that only Norwegians need apply. One leading recruiter sees routine discrimination against foreigners and seniors, although their presence at the larger firms like Statoil is far more common. PHOTO: Statoil/Arne Reidar Mortensen

Erik Hansen, who heads operations in Norway and Scotland for the world’s largest recruiting firm for the oil and gas industry, told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) on Friday that when Norwegian companies claim they have trouble finding qualified employees, they mostly can blame themselves.

“When we put forward foreign job candidates, or experienced workers over age 55, they just say ‘no, no, no,'” Hansen told DN. He said that all of the 139 management positions that his firm (Progressive Global Energy) has helped fill so far this year went to Norwegians, even though fully 22 percent of the candidates put forward were foreigners.

Hansen, whose firm is a sister company of the recruiting firms SThree and Huxley Associates, said that Norwegian companies’ employment of engineers, project leaders and workers within health care, environmental issues and safety showed the same tendency. Even though Progressive Global Energy presented a majority of foreign candidates, the companies chose Norwegians.

‘Inflexible’
While some companies will argue that they don’t have time to deal with all the paperwork and other immigration challenges attached to foreign job candidates, many of them come from European countries and can obtain work and residence permission in Norway fairly easily. Instead they’re also met with skepticism or outright rejection by Norwegian employers who only want to hire other Norwegians.

“It’s interesting to see how inflexible the Norwegian mindset is,” said Hansen, who has worked in Aberdeen, Moscow, Houston and Singapore. “Norway will lose out unless we take advantage of foreign competence and the experience of older workers.”

That was the theme of a recent conference in Oslo on global mobility and the need for Norwegian employers to look abroad. Government officials have also claimed that a majority of new jobs created in Norway are going to immigrants, not to native Norwegians, although those numbers have been disputed.

‘Good candidate, wrong colour’
What’s most disturbing, according to Hansen, is the “shocking feedback we get from our (employer) clients” when they turn down qualified candidates he’s put forward who are not Norwegian. He told DN he’s heard comments from prospective Norwegian employers like “Good candidate, but wrong (skin) colour,” and “We want cowboys, not Indians.” That led Hansen to make a brave and equally shocking claim:

“Norwegian companies are racist,” he said. “For us, it’s shocking and irritating. Even if you are racist, you can’t afford to be so.”

Norwegian employers routinely demand, for example, that job candidates are fluent in Norwegian even though 90 percent of the employers use English as a working language. He also said Norwegian employers often insist on Master’s degrees even when it’s not necessary for the job involved and when previous work experience is far more valuable.

Age discrimination is another major problem in Norway, according to Hansen, despite frequent demands from the government that Norwegians should work longer, even beyond Norway’s official retirement age of 67. Hansen said his experience shows that highly qualified candidates over the age of 55 seldom are chosen by Norwegian employers even though they have more experience and likely would be far more loyal employees than younger workers who often move on to other jobs after just a few years.

‘Simpler’ with Norwegians
Vidar Skjelbred, head of rig company Songa Offshore in Norway, admits he prefers Norwegian employees. “It’s simpler when everyone has the same basic language,” Skjelbred told DN. “We put a priority on finding Norwegian seafarers for our rigs. We want workers who live close to where they’ll travel offshore from, to their workplace.”

Gisle Johansen of Odfjell Drilling told DN it was “traditional” to value Norwegian leadership, a Norwegian organizational culture and Norwegian management culture.” Both he and Skjelbred justified their preference for Norwegian language proficiency by pointing to strict regulations regarding health and safety on the rigs. It’s better when all on board speak Norwegian, it’s believed.

Workers go on board one of Statoil’s drilling rigs in the North Sea. One recruiter said only the big companies like Statoil or Aker Solutions are able to help workers get through immigration processes and settle in Norway. PHOTO: Statoil/Øyvind Hagen

John Egil Mæland of another major recruiting firm in Norway, Mercuri Urval, nonetheless disagreed  with Hansen’s assessment that Norwegian employers discriminate. Mæland said he hasn’t experienced racism but noted that employers do “prefer folks who have working permission in the country. Many of these companies don’t have time to deal with paperwork or find a home for their recruits. Only the really big companies have the apparatus to help with such things.”

He also claimed the oil and gas industry faces staffing shortages all over the world, not just in Norway. “We tried to attract some specialists from Portugal and Spain, but the Portuguese go to Angola and Brazil where they can speak the language,” Mæland said.

Hansen’s experience as a professional recruiter in Norway is alarming given the need for thousands of engineers and skilled workers, not least in the country’s booming oil and gas industries. DN reported earlier this week that as many as 4,500 workers will be needed just to staff all the new offshore rigs that will start operating on the Norwegian continental shelf during the next three years. The Norwegian Shipowners Association, which faces a drain of competence from offshore shipping firms also facing staffing needs, wondered where all the thousands of workers will come from for an industry that needs so many new employees, and soon.

Hansen reports that he’s contacted by skilled workers from, for example, Germany, France, Portugal and Spain “every day” who are willing to work for Norwegian employers, but the majority are met with skepticism and rejection.

“I think we (Norwegians) are skeptical by nature and we don’t develop in line with the rest of the world,” Hansen told DN. He thinks Norwegian oil and offshore companies should remember that it was foreign oil experts and companies, not least ConocoPhillips, who “started the oil adventure in this country. I think we’ve gotten a bit conceited and forgotten that. We think like Americans did back in the 1950s, but we can’t afford that.”

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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